Ed Driscoll

Hollywood: Where The Details Don't Always Add Up

“Dirty Harry” of Libertas writes:

The success of 300 terrifies Hollywood. They’re completely stumped. They seriously consider it conservative because it’s not liberal. They actually consider it prejudiced because it’s not politically correct. They’ve had their way so long, they’ve forgotten what a universal theme is. Hollywood, if you want to learn how to make films appealing to more than just the Blood Diamond crowd, park your Prius next to the Hummer, enter your mansion, send the exploited underage coke-addicted hookers and illegal alien housekeepers home, and turn on Turner Classic Movies for a day.

The funny thing is, I would bet serious money that the average Hollywood mogul probably has TCM tuned into his rear-projection HDTV screen pretty often. But when he does, he’ll focus on the tiny details, and lose sight of the big picture. He’ll get hooked on Orson Welles’ deep-focus photography, and not his character studies. Or Hitchcock’s rhythmic editing, and not how deftly he handles a story.

From its poster to its cinematography, what was Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German if not an attempt to mate the brilliant craftsmanship of old Hollywood with the dark cynicism of its current form? As The Good German’s trivia page on the IMDB states, “The film was shot as if it had been made in 1945…The only allowance was the inclusion of nudity, violence and cursing which would have been forbidden by the Production Code”. And yet it’s that Production Code that virtually created classic Hollywood, by giving it rules to operate under–and yes, push against. But pushing against isn’t quite the same as breaking; that would come much later, much to the box office’s chagrin.

I remember seeing a PBS documentary on Hollywood in which Steven Spielberg listed as an influence Hungarian-born Michael Curtz, the director of countless Hollywood standards, from The Adventures of Robin Hood to White Christmas. And this little known, low-budget WWII melodrama. There’s no doubt that Spielberg has Curtiz’s camera moves and compositional style down cold. But square Bogie’s classic line that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”, with this moment from Saving Private Ryan:

Endeavouring to justify their mission to his unit, Hanks’s sergeant muses that, in years to come when they look back on the war, they’ll figure that `maybe saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we managed to pull out of this whole godawful mess’.

As Mark Steyn continued in his 1998 review of the film:

Once upon a time, defeating Hitler and his Axis hordes bent on world domination would have been considered ‘one decent thing’. Even soppy liberals figured that keeping a few million more Jews from going to the gas chambers was ‘one decent thing’. When fashions in victim groups changed, ending the Nazi persecution of pink-triangled gays was still ‘one decent thing’. But, for Spielberg, the one decent thing is getting one GI joe back to his picturesque farmhouse in Iowa.

And then for Spielberg, onward and downward to the further moral equivalence of Munich.

In great art–even great pop art–when it all works, the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. But you have to have “the vision thing” to see beyond the individual parts. Reports vary on whether or not he actually said it, but architect Mies van der Rohe will always be associated with the statement that “God is in the details”. But it helps if you actually believe that He’s in there somewhere, first.

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